Sinai Border Attack: What’s Behind the Unrest in Egypt’s Rogue Province

After a brazen militant attack on an Egyptian base led to the deaths of 16 soldiers, questions are growing over whether Egypt's fragile government can control Islamist extremism on its Israeli border

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Ariel Schalit / AP

An Israeli soldier examines the wreckage of an Egyptian military vehicle that militants drove through a security fence into Israel at an Israeli military base along the border with Egypt on Aug. 6, 2012

Egypt claimed on Monday to have launched a dramatic manhunt for the perpetrators of a brazen Sunday-evening attack on an Egyptian security post that left 16 soldiers dead and at least seven others wounded in the Sinai peninsula. Security officials told the Associated Press that Egyptian counterterrorism units had convened in the North Sinai capital of al-Arish on Monday, along with at least two helicopter gunships to track down the Islamist extremists accused of the attack. But on Egypt’s lawless eastern frontier, where armed Bedouin tribesmen run the show more effectively than the Egyptian police force, a manhunt is more easily said than done; and while lasting change has been promised repeatedly in recent years, no Egyptian authority has accomplished it.

At sunset on Sunday evening, a group of armed militants that Egyptian media and eyewitnesses described as a mix of Palestinians and local Bedouin extremists, stormed an Egyptian security post near the country’s shared border with Israel and the Gaza Strip, killing at least 16 Egyptian soldiers as they sat down to break their daylong fast during the holy month of Ramadan. “They were dead in their food,” says Ahmed Abu Deraa, a local journalist from al-Arish who drove to the scene immediately after the attack. The attackers stole two armored military vehicles and drove toward the Israeli border, where one exploded and the other was incinerated by an Israeli air strike. Abu Deraa says the incident marks the most brazen assault on Egyptian forces in the Sinai since Egypt’s 1973 war with Israel, and its significance was amplified by the timing. “That it was the month [of Ramadan] is significant, and that it was during iftar [when Muslims break their daily fast],” he says.

(PHOTOS: Celebrating the Brotherhood’s Victory: A New President is Elected in Egypt)

But that doesn’t mean the violence is unprecedented. In fact, the warning signs were there. The Sinai peninsula — a territory at the center of centuries of regional conflict and long Egypt’s rogue region — has seen its security plummet in the past 18 months since a popular uprising forced an end to the 30-year authoritarian reign of President Hosni Mubarak. When civilian protesters battled Mubarak’s police forces across the country — and temporarily forced their retreat from the streets — at the height of the January 2011 uprising, Bedouin tribal leaders in North Sinai took their protest movement up a notch: until the government rectified its relationship with the long-marginalized Bedouin, released jailed Bedouin and launched a new plan for security and development, they said, the police would not be coming back. In the intervening months, that promise has largely held true, and clashes between the police and the Bedouin — a historically nomadic people with a distinct dialect and culture from mainland Egypt, who comprise a majority in the Sinai — have surged.

But in the security vacuum, Bedouin leaders in North Sinai have also reported a resurgence of the Islamic extremist organization Takfir wal-Hijra, a group loosely affiliated with al-Qaeda with ambitions of global jihad. No group has claimed responsibility for Sunday’s attack, but Abu Deraa says community members who witnessed the incident in Huriya village near the Karem Abu Salem border crossing were able to recognize local members of Takfir wal-Hijra from among the attackers, as well as men speaking the Palestinian dialect. The Egyptian independent newspaper al-Watan reported on Monday that “anonymous people” had distributed leaflets in the area the week before, urging local residents to kill army officers in the Sinai on the grounds that the army was serving Israel’s interests. It wouldn’t be the first time since their resurgence that Takfir wal-Hijra had passed out leaflets.

Both Egyptian and Israeli authorities were quick to pin the blame primarily on Palestinian militants, suggesting a growing level of coordination between like-minded groups across a border permeated by underground smuggling tunnels.

(MORE: How the Military Won The Egyptian Election)

Even so, Abu Deraa and an Egyptian government official in al-Arish told TIME on Monday that government reports of a curfew and a security cordon around the border town of Rafah, near where the attacks took place, were simply false. “There is no army or security presence in Rafah — no more than the usual,” says Abu Deraa. “And until now, there is absolutely no presence of police in Rafah and [the nearby town of] Sheikh Zwaid. The only presence is of armored cars and they’re on the main roads.”

Indeed, the government’s course of action in the Sinai in the coming days and months will provide a crucial test for the newly elected government of Mohamed Morsy, an Islamist from Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, which has long held ties to Hamas, the Islamist group that governs Gaza — and which some of Morsy’s critics, including the daily newspaper al-Dustour, were quick to implicate in the attacks. “Hamas threatens the security of Egypt,” read the independent newspaper’s top headline on Monday. The front page was also splashed with questions like “Is it true that Morsy and his Brotherhood are moving to open an office for Hamas in Egypt?” and “Hamas’ reach within Egypt in cooperating with the ruling Muslim Brotherhood is a very dangerous thing. So will [the military generals from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces] be silent, despite the threat to national security?”

Hamas formally condemned Sunday’s attack on Egyptian soil, calling it an act of “terror.” And Morsy, who has stressed his government’s commitment to international agreements, has promised to make the attackers “pay dearly.” But after edging out his opponent with just over half the vote in June, Morsy, who is both the first Islamist President and first democratically elected President in Egyptian history, is already facing a tidal swell of opposition. In addition to inheriting a troubled Sinai peninsula, Morsy has taken the reins of a deeply corrupt bureaucracy and an economy on the rocks. He is grappling with a powerful military junta that has so far proved unwilling to cede full power, maintaining its direct control over the country’s armed forces. And Morsy’s opponents at home and abroad have been eager to paint him as a political disaster in a country that can surely do without any more — to them, he is an Islamist who will allow the already precarious security situation in Egypt’s Sinai peninsula to unravel and whose tenure as President could launch a new round of conflict between Egypt and the Jewish state.

(MORE: Islamist Morsy Wins Egyptian Presidency, but Will the Military Cede Any Power?)

Indeed, for many in Egypt and abroad, Morsy’s ability — or inability — to turn the Sinai around and maintain Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel will provide a critical portion of the verdict on the Islamist’s first term in office.

But in the Sinai, where the Bedouin population has long complained of neglect and systematic discrimination by the government in Cairo, the test lies in Morsy’s commitment to doing things differently. In practice, Bedouin have not been permitted to serve in Egypt’s military or police forces; roads, hospitals and schools in the Sinai are woefully sparse; and rights groups say that Bedouin men suffer from arbitrary detention by security forces and are often cut out of employment opportunities in the territory’s moneymaking tourism sector — all factors that have pushed the Sinai’s border-zone communities to work in illegal smuggling and may make it a prime recruitment ground for extremists. To keep the Sinai from slipping further into the danger zone, Morsy will have to do more than issue a new sweep of arrest warrants, as the Mubarak regime did after a series of terrorist bombings hit South Sinai from 2004 to 2006 — a policing effort that did little for lasting security and justice but a lot for modern-day tensions. “The community is very worried now about a confrontation, because after yesterday’s attack, the police and army will have to take action,” says Abu Deraa. “The people are afraid that if the army takes action, they won’t differentiate between factions, they’ll just arrest everyone.”

— With reporting by Caroline Kolta / Cairo

PHOTOS: Mohamed Morsy Declared Egypt’s First Islamist President

41 comments
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TimUpham
TimUpham

It is time we all start accepting that Dar al-Islam is not a serene and monolithic entity.  Al Qaeda has a presence within Gaza in the Salafists, and Salafist activities are now spreading into Sinai -- Egyptian sovereign territory.  They are a threat to both Egypt and Israel, not to mention that Hamas in Gaza has been fighting the Salafists.  Peace has to be maintained between both Israel and Egypt, to deal with this common threat.  It would not hurt either, if peace was extended into Gaza.  Because Israel, Egypt, and Gaza are all fighting those who want to deface Islam.

MPA2000
MPA2000

"Indeed, for many in Egypt and abroad, Morsy’s ability — or inability — to turn the Sinai around and maintain Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel will provide a critical portion of the verdict on the Islamist’s first term in office."---

What idiot wrote this stuff?  SCAF put themselves in charge of the police and military for 18 months and never set foot in the Sinai.  Morsi, who was stripped of his authority over the military is suddenly to blame?

This article is obviously written by a pro-SCAF or Israeli, which are most likely one in the same.

MahmoudHadi
MahmoudHadi

For all the peace lovers in the the world .. World is safer and more secure , without the Zionist regime of Israel . A fact that we all need to realize and work seriously for . Israel is the only devil , and the enemy of humanity .

Jacob Blues
Jacob Blues

Right, it was due to the "Zionists" that there was an uprising in Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria, multiple civil wars in Lebanon, the fight between Turkey and the Kurds, or Iraq's invasion of Iran, or of Kuwait, or it's Saddam's destruction of the Iraqi Kurds and Iraqi Shi'a.  Or perhaps the multi-decade long civil war in Afghanistan?  Or the multi-decade civil war in Yemen, or the massacres of hundred's of thousands of people in Sudan or the multiple wars between Pakistan and India, or perhaps the civil war between Pakistan and Bangladesh?

Try again Mahmoud.  Your Jew hatred is showing.

ricardo lion
ricardo lion

   For all the peace lovers in the the world .. World is safer and more secure , without the Muslim Arab bloody dictatorships, medieval kingdoms and jihadi groups.      Israel is the Jewish (the religion of

Jesus), democratic (rights for all) and civilized (no civil war,  hanging of gays, women stoning, “honour”

killing of girls by their own fathers and brothers, etc) country.

 

sherifahmed
sherifahmed

There's no one single evidence till now about the terrorists that made the horrible attack; so why would you stick it to Islamist, or even Palestinians?

You should always look for who will benefit from this. Mubarak helped Israelis to surround Gaza for many years, and no single person was killed, and when Egyptian opens borders to Palestinians and send gas ti them they kill us??

Look for who benefits from this...

Jacob Blues
Jacob Blues

Really, so you've been shown the evidence?  The bodies?  Their tracks to and from the Egyptian base? 

You have the intelligence reports that Israel sent to Egypt prior to the attack warning them about a potential attack?  Or the subsequent intelligence reports?

OR

Are you just blowing smoke. 

sherifahmed
sherifahmed

WOW, I'm new here, but I'm really amazed about you guys, how could you close the reply option when you want to ACCIDENTALLY stop the conversation ??

I really hate to take our conversation to this low level as you did in your last reply, and as a Muslim, i was ordered not to do so " (29:46) Argue not *80 with the People of the Book except in the fairest manner, *81unless it be those of them that are utterly unjust. *82 Say to them: 'We believe in what was revealed to us and what was revealed to you. One is our God and your God; and we are those who submit *83 ourselves to Him."

Let me say it one last time slowly and clearly so you can get it -i really hope so-:

If the first reaction of that terrorism attack was to close -again- the borders, and to destroy the tunnels between Egypt and Gaza, then who would be the winner?

I will give you a hint: the prophet's killers...

Jacob Blues
Jacob Blues

Ok, so you admit you're just blowing smoke. 

Let me know when you have a real argument to make rather than make up some BS conspiracy theory like using the long debunked deicide charge. 

Honestly Sherif, I'm not interested in what you have to say about the Quran, I'm interested in knowing if you have any actual evidence or facts to back up your allegations. 

Essentially by putting what you did in your reply you essentially show us your hand which is empty. 

sherifahmed
sherifahmed

Israel sent nothing to Egypt, Israel warned their people in Sinai to leave only 3 days before the attack!!!

Don't you wonder sir, why the terrorists when they were trying to escape, the headed to the Israeli border? And the Israelis were ready with their fighting jets to DESTROY them, instead of capturing, so the world can know the truth about WHO WAS BEHIND THAT?

Jacob Blues
Jacob Blues

Let's see now, Jews don't kill themselves, except when you claim they do, yet we're too stupid to do that - but not apparently as stupid as the Arabs who do kill themselves. 

Right. 

Well, you got one thing right, I am a Jew - and you, are a racist bigot. 

We control the world, but despite this control need to create conspiracy situations where we would attack ourselves - just because. 

Do us all a favor Sherif, and adjust your tin-foil hat because the secret radio waves might actually unscramble your brain. 

sherifahmed
sherifahmed

I didn't say that Jews killed themselves, i believe they are not that stupid 'well, they are stupid, but not that much'.

If you go back to my "empty" comments, you wouldn't find in any of it that i said they did it, but i believe they are behind it, i thought you would figure it yourself, but if forgot that you are Jew :-).

Jacob, don't pretend to be a peace maker.

The whole world knows that you people are vampires, expect those few that have the same virus as you.

If you look at the media all over the world, expect those that is owned or controlled by you, you will get the real story, Jews are killing innocents and destroying houses over the head of their owners on a daily basis. But i have to admit it, you people are SO professional for making facts upside down.

بتاريخ 2012 8 10 20:58، كتبها "Disqus" <notifications@disqus.net>:</notifications@disqus.net>

Jacob Blues
Jacob Blues

Your first comment was as empty and vapid as the subsequent ones. 

You had no evidence other then you don't like Jews and think they would be happy to kill themselves to score political points. 

sherifahmed
sherifahmed

Great, so you are asking for an evidence?

Please back to my first comment.

Jacob Blues
Jacob Blues

Oh, one more thing Sherif, you can read today's op-ed by David Ignatious that points to Israel directly warning Egypt's intelligence service about an imminent attack as well as the word that the warning was passed on from Egypt's own intelligence service to Egypt's military. 

But hey, why bother working with reality when we have your own fantasy world of "Israel sent nothing to Egypt..."

http://www.washingtonpost.com/...

Jacob Blues
Jacob Blues

Ah, you you work in the mail room of Egypt's intelligence service.

You really think that If the Israeli government is issuing a PUBLIC warning to its citizens to clear out because of an impending terrorist attacks, that it's not going to send a heads-up message to its contacts in Egypt?

Are you really that dumb or did your mother just drop you on your head too many times when you were a child?

The terrorists were trying to escape?!?  Why?  They killed the Egyptian garrison it wasn't like there was "hot pursuit" coming from Cairo. 

And, the idea that Arabs broke into Israel to try to kill Jews is not a new story or a surprise one along the lines of "man bites dog". 

Yes, the IDF killed the terrorists, that's what a self-defense force does.  Sorry that you don't seem to have realized this, but Israelis take a dim view of those trying to kill them and undertake serious and lethal methods to stop them.  This too, is neither new nor a surprise - execpt apparently to someone like yourself. 

ricardo lion
ricardo lion

  Muslim Arabs are always killing Muslim Arabs, nothing new here.  They also killed 300,000 black Christians in Darfur.

sherifahmed
sherifahmed

Of course you will find single cases of people killing each other, it happend since the first sons of Adam, and sure will continue till the day after. But there's no reason anyway to stick it to Muslims!. All newspapers around the world are full of horrible terrorism stories - I'm sure you didn't forget about the Batman movie, Seikh temple, Oklahoma city, etc...- and it was all made from non Muslims.

But the real problem is with the terrorism governments, that kills innocent unarmed people on a daily basis for no reason.

I'm sure sir you know who I'm talking about.

ricardo lion
ricardo lion

"I'm sure sir you know who I'm talking about."You are probably talking about

the governments of

those Muslim Arab bloody dictatorships and medieval kingdoms that declared war on Israel.

  I wish peace and democracy to the Arab world.

sherifahmed
sherifahmed

There's no one single evidence till now about the terrorists that made the horrible attack; so why would you stick it to Islamist, or even Palestinians?

You should always look for who will benefit from this. Mubarak helped Israelis to surround Gaza for many years, and no single person was killed, and when Egyptian opens borders to Palestinians and send gas ti them they kill us??

Look for who benefits from this

Firozali A.Mulla
Firozali A.Mulla

Nothing but sand and no water yet we will rage wars on the children and elderly to show our supremacy and for what I have no idea I thank you Firozali A.Mulla DBA

julis123
julis123

It should be noted that part of the force that stopped the armored car and killed the (mostly Bedouin) terrorists was from the Israeli Bedouin brigade.

Yefim_Feldman
Yefim_Feldman

It  shows  the  effectiveness  of  the  Egyptian  army. I  even  wonder  if  they  really

did  win  the  73  war.

ricardo lion
ricardo lion

   They did not.  

Their aim, with the help of other Muslim Arab 

bloody dictatorships and medieval kingdoms  was to destroy Israel and Israel is here.

MahmoudHadi
MahmoudHadi

                    The act is evidently a plot of Israeli Intelligence called the  Mousad . The facts and the evidences  all point to this fact. In addition to the analysis conclusion  , that makes it clear that the Zionist regime is the only Beneficiary of the bloody massacre of m0re than 17 Egyptian soldiers . Israel is spreading a state of unrest in the  whole region , that is an important part of their strategy to survive . This is not the first time that Israel kills in cold blood Egyptian soldiers on the border line with Egypt . It happened repeatedly over the years . Israel tries all the time to drag the whole region to confrontations , to fuel their greed of  occupying lands and killings . Wish all the world to realize the danger of Israel on world peace and security . May God Bless souls of the victims , and revenge for their unlawful killing .  

  

Jacob Blues
Jacob Blues

evidently? 

What's so evident about it Mahmoud?  There have been a number of terrorist attacks in the Sinai over the past few years - or have you so quickly forgotten the suicide bombing and terrorist attack in Taba?  Or perhaps the smoke from the multiple pipeline bombings during the past year has failed to reach your nose.  Maybe, you think that Israel decided that since one attempt to kill its citizens during last year's attack was successful it should try to kill more of its own. 

  As the quote goes "Fat Drunk and Stupid is no way to go through life son..."

With your comments above, you've laid claim to at least one of those problems. 

MahmoudHadi
MahmoudHadi

Dear Mr. Jacob

       With every respect to your analysis , but seem you are missing important facts .          Consider what has happened quietly, and after that the proportions of the curse and the application of the theory of «search for the beneficiary» we discover, quite simply, those who work those who carried out the heinous crime.        These young criminals, whether they are aware of or do not realize they worked in practice for the benefit of a criminal is the largest Israeli Mossad.           It does not matter who they belong intellectually and organizationally, and whether of the Salafist jihad, or is organically linked to one of the Palestinian organizations in Gaza. Result is the same which is the main goal is to show the state's inability to control the Egyptian Sinai.           Consequently, the objective result is the creation of public opinion, international and regional intervention in some way by an Israeli air strikes such as the objectives in the Sinai, or the establishment of a security bar on the border as was the case with Lebanon for many years.                                       Please Jacob ... reconsider and free yourself of prejudgments , that could have led you to poor analysis .   I also agree with what Mr. Pellam has come to of incompetence of Israel's enemies , but not their ineptitude .                                                               Thank you Jacob .

Jacob Blues
Jacob Blues

I'm sorry Mahmoud, but that is the dumbest and stupidist explanation I've heard to date. 

It ranks right down there with the Mossad Sharks conspiracy theory.   And conspiracy theories have held a long and ignoble tradition in the Arab world. 

The Arabs and Muslims have no shortage of ills they try to blame on the Jews and the idea that Israel - a state that has spent billions of dollars to protect their citizens - including creating bomb shelters on local playgrounds - is going to be behind deliberate terrorist attacks on its own citizens.   All of this is wrapped up in your false claim that you hold "facts and evidence" that this attack was actually perpetrated by the Mossad. 

Jews have had enough attempts on our lives throughout the years that the idea of killing more of our own - by ourselves - is outright idiocy.  We are a people for whom the phrase 'never again' means something.  We are a small people who have long been concerned about the sustainability of the remaining population.  We don't go about trying to kill each other - especially as a means of scoring political points. 

ricardo lion
ricardo lion

Muslim Arabs are always killing Muslim Arabs (Somalia, Sudan, Algeria in te 80's, Jordan in te 70's, Syria, Libya, Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, etc.), nothing new here.  They also killed 300,000 black Christians in Darfur.

Pellam
Pellam

Sometimes a failed operation is just a failed operation. Israel has benefited many times due to the incompetence of its enemies. That does not mean it was responsible for its enemies ineptitude too.

Pellam
Pellam

 Oh, stop lying. Muslims kill Muslims everyday because it in part of their culture.

polnick
polnick

Construction of hundreds of luxury Mosques in Egypt will keep the Brotherhood peacful and busy. The costs can be billed to oil rich Arab billionaires.

Dan Bruce
Dan Bruce

Massacre in the Sinai. It's those peaceful Palestinians again. Don't you wish they were living next door to you?

MPA2000
MPA2000

I'd take living next to Osama Bin Laden, to an Israeli any day.

Dan Bruce
Dan Bruce

In that case, you'll need SCUBA gear.

Raimo Kangasniemi
Raimo Kangasniemi

Oh yes, the horrible Palestinians, totally unlike the saintly Zionist Jews whose apartheid policies, ethnic cleansing, "extrajudicial assasinations" and endless occupation can be only praised as epitome of human morality and goodness... The Zionist Jews who only want peace even when they shoot dead little children feeding birds on their home's roof...

ricardo lion
ricardo lion

  Apartheid only in the judenrein Muslim Arab bloody dictatorships and medieval kingdoms that declared war on Israel, the Jewish (the

religion of Jesus), democratic (rights for all) and civilized (no civil

war,  hanging of gays, women stoning,

“honour” killing of girls by their own fathers and brothers, etc) country. 

leonidas21
leonidas21

Your verbal diarrhea reflects your ignorance of and hatred towards Israel - and as usual with people like you, has nothing to do with facts.

123asd123
123asd123

What is not true about his statement?  Have read the history?  Does not look like it, otherwise you would have not made such an ignorant statement.  

Dan Bruce
Dan Bruce

It isn't Zionists from Gaza killing Muslims in the Sinai. Get real.

nrxic
nrxic

Although it must be noted that Zionists have everything to gain from this sort of violence (well I suppose that's a very general statement that could be applied to every act of violence).